It is hard being creative about the titles of each blog we post but this one truly touches upon the core identity of the next country our wheels have spun through: what you and I would probably – and lazily – call Macedonia. But our route up high into the Ohrid hills on the border with Albania took us once more back into the Balkan lands, to those of Macedonia. Oops, there I go again. I meant the Republic of Macedonia. And if you are a technocrat sitting in a lofty office block in the UN in New York, or if you are a Greek, then we are dealing with FYROM (the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). So that’s settled then.
Name disputes aside, this is a wonderfully beautiful country in parts, not least the breath-catching views from high up in the mountains overlooking Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespes. And that’s not to mention lovely Ohrid itself. Followed by “buzzy” Bitola with its chilly town centre.
But let us focus on Ohrid (and its name) for a moment. What my old french teacher would have labelled a “faux ami”, because it would be hard to imagine a more pleasant setting to construct an Ottoman town than on the gently lapping shores of this 60km long (and 30km wide) lake.
Snow-capped peaks, emerging pink-white-yellow blossom sifting through the cool atmosphere, and then the giddying descents married to bum-numbing climbs into the thin mountain air. Alright, not quite that high but putting matters into perspective is always good and on at least two occasions we peddled up to heights greater than anything the British Isles can muster. If you close your eyes and concentrate you can now probably hear a gentle rippling sound, (no, it’s not the feeble hum of your computer’s fan) but the faint echo of the self-congratulatory slapping ourselves on the back.
With all the winding roads, climbs and drops, delicious road-side fruit (Apples, boy, have we seen apples), we sadly deprived ourselves of much interaction with the local people, who watched us sail past quizzically with heads softly tilting backwards to acknowledge our apparent whim. “You can take the bus”, they say. But that is not our game.
And before long the Via Egnatia, that ancient Roman trading-route slicing across the top of modern-day Greece and transporting all manner of goodies from Rome to Constantinople, spurted us out onto the the plains of Northern Greece. But more of that next time.
The final few kilometres near the Hellas border provided Francesca with her chart-topping top speed of 63.8km/hr! For those of you not bicyclely-inclined, be under no illusion. This is very fast indeed, particularly when fully loaded (a 45kg juggernaut no less). And Francesca’s face. It could not have been more memorable at the bottom of that hill. Suffused with adrenalin-joy and speckled with midges who simply had no time to take evasive action as she barrelled downwards. Sadly, there is no photo of this, but I hope you get the idea.
We are told that the even higher hills, deeper into FYROM, (ROM), or M, offer even greater opportunities to sample post-Yugo beauty (including skiing) and we do not doubt it. The brief (less than 3 days) time we spent in Macedonia was fun indeed but we can sense the open seas of Mediterrean Greece are close and the end of Leg 1 of our journey is nearing…..